4 of Swords: Libra III
Decan ruler (Chaldean): Jupiter
Hermetic Title: Truce / Rest from Strife
Corresponding major arcana: The Wheel of Fortune [Jupiter] + Justice [Libra]
Dates: October 13 - October 22
Ah, the recumbent knight. Often my clients shudder a little when they first set eyes on him. Is he sleeping? or is he dead? Neither, I suppose: after a moment's reflection, many of us come to realize he is a tomb effigy, likely carved from stone. Perhaps he is gilded with late afternoon light. Welcome to the last decan of Libra! where beneath the manic, whirligig dance of falling leaves, the earth's northern hemisphere is going dormant.
Moment of Inertia
The 4 of Swords brings together the Wheel of Fortune (Jupiter) and the Justice (Libra) cards. Between the scales and the wheel imagery, it seems inevitable we should think of applied physics - at the very least, we might expect questions of spin and balance to come into play. And indeed they do!
Some years ago while reading about Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope between Manhattan's Twin Towers in 1974, I learned about the concept of "rotational inertia," or "moment of inertia", or "angular mass". The textbook definition of rotational inertia is "resistance to angular acceleration around a rotational axis" - i.e., how hard it is to spin an object around an axis. For example, a bead on an abacus wire spins very easily. The massive rotating prayer wheel at the top of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore, on the other hand, takes quite a bit of a push to get going. I know because I tried.
The bigger the mass of the thing being shifted, the more resistance. And from a tightrope artist's point of view, less shifting is obviously good. The artist's balancing pole effectively increases the artist's mass, so he has more resistance to spinning around the wire. He is using physics to trick gravity into thinking he's ever so much larger than he actually is, thereby making it ever so much easier for him to balance. (Sound like a massive friendly giant planet you know?)
We see the same thing when a gymnast walks the beam with their arms outstretched to the side. This posture - hands outstretched in service of balance - inevitably makes me think of the Hebrew letters associated with the Wheel of Fortune and Justice - כ kaph and ל lamed. Kaph is the open palm outstretched for receiving; lamed is the ox-goad, tool and metaphor of correction. Professionals actually use a pole that droops on either end - which lowers their center of gravity, making it even easier to walk the line.
And you know something really strange? Every Thursday (Jupiter day!) I walk from my parking lot to the shop where I read, and there's a stretch of 4" wide curb along the way. I'm usually carrying a bunch of stuff and I like to walk atop the curb to see if I can keep my balance for its whole length without having to step to the street just below. This past Thursday, thinking about 4 of Swords physics, I imagined I was carrying a long droopy balancing pole, thereby increasing my angular mass and lowering my center of gravity, and it was about 10 times easier to stay balanced! Go figure.
Anyway, physics aside, I also think there is a sense of inner concentration in the 4 of Swords - the knight at rest having found a mental tranquility removed from the whirl and bustle of life. We'll talk more about that in a moment. But that Zen state, I am willing to guess, is something funambulists (aren't you glad you know that word now!) know well.
The Crisis of the Crossroads
One of my tarot hobbyhorses is the idea that each of the four elements tells a story through the cards. The Fool represents the "story of Air," which I conceive of as a journey of the mind from unscripted void to certainty. I use the keywords "crossroads," "compass," and "choice" to designate the cards of Libra (Adjustment + 2, 3, and 4 of Swords), Aquarius (Star + 5, 6, and 7 of Swords), and Gemini (Lovers + 8 9, and 10 of Swords) respectively.
Within the "crossroads" minors themselves, there is also a progression: We can think of the 2 of Swords as an impasse, where all routes look equally good. The 3 of Swords is a crisis, where you realize that even so, you are bound to act. And the 4 of Swords is a compromise, where you make a deal with the spirit of the crossroads (the Devil! Papa Legba! Baron Samedi! whomever!) for your mutual benefit.
As we shall see, this is just one way in which the 4 of Swords figures as an intensely magical, realm-crossing, non-ordinary-reality-type card
Window of the Mind
Although the tomb effigy is the 4 of Swords' central focus, the stained glass window in the upper left of the card merits a second look. Casual scrutiny reveals a supplicant kneeling before a saintlike, haloed figure. But if you inspect the halo more closely, the word PAX (Latin for "peace) clearly emerges, a clear reference to the card's Hermetic title: Truce, or Rest from Strife.
I find the relationship of knight to window extremely fruitful in the context of a reading, because it can be read in multiple ways:
Death: Pamela Colman Smith is said to have based her design on the chancel of Winchelsea Church, whose walls famously feature lines of medieval tombs and vivid stained glass windows. When someone dies, we say they are "at peace," removed from the tumult of the living world (represented by the window).
Vigil: By the late Middle Ages, European knighthood had acquired a number of ritual observances. One of these was the vigil, where a squire on the eve of knighthood would stay up all night, watching over his armor and praying; essentially dedicating his life as a knight to God. The 4 of Swords could represent the knight imagining his future life (the window), or the act of being knighted (the kneeling figure in the window), or the state of sanctity itself (the haloed figure); the tension between mortal body and purified soul. "Vigil," incidentally, is cognate with the word for "eve" in several Romance languages, as well as our own vigilant and vigilante.
Sleep: The 4 of Swords evokes our nightly rest in two different ways. 1) most obviously, the act of dreaming. The window in this case represents those vivid narratives, brought to life unbidden by our unconscious minds. 2) the restorative qualities of sleep, in which the body processes metabolic waste and consolidates memory. The window then symbolizes preparation for re-entry into life, or perhaps the memories which are being processed, refined, and filed into archives.
Meditation: In meditation, we learn to experience detachment from the chaos of the "monkey mind"; its fears, angers, regrets, as well as its longings and hopes. We can read the window as that chaos which we place at a remove from our core self. We can read the swords, too, as a similar metaphor: three swords (Lord of Sorrow) separated from the single sword representing mental self-possession.
Active imagination: And finally, the 4 of Swords can represent this core practice for Jungians and esoteric practitioners - "trance induction," "journeying," "astral travel," "visualization," "active imagination". Whatever you call this practice, it allows us to experience realities other than our own. In this case, the window becomes that inner, imagined reality. Which is the true reality? the imagined one, or the given one? As magicians, we rely on our ability to blur or transform that distinction. In this context, the window becomes a numinous site for our relationship with matters of the spirit.
Divination: In the act of a reading, the client's question takes on a life of its own. As readers, we allow ourselves to enter a receptive state (the knight), so that we can better glimpse the true nature of the problem. Here the window represents that "enhanced information" - regardless of whether we use it in a predictive or transformative fashion.
In daily practice, I have experienced every one of these manifestations when I've drawn the 4 of Swords. Also, I’ve found it can exert an unexpected, very literal compulsion. I am not a person who naps, normally, but on 4 of Swords days it is not uncommon for me to have to lie down, during the day, with my eyes closed. It could be a migraine. It could be acupuncture. It could be journey work. When I drew the 4 of Swords last week, it was a very special piece of chocolate shared with me by friends! which caused me to drop off for a few minutes mid-conversation. When this card appears I have learned to be on the alert, so to speak, for drowsiness.
The Wild Hunt
A couple weeks ago, I was doing a reading for a shamanic practitioner, and the 4 of Swords showed up as her signifier. I realized, suddenly, that the 4 of Swords is an excellent signifier for what happens in shamanic work (though not the only one - I would argue that the 7 of Swords is too). Now there are many forms of shamanic engagement, and they fall along the spectrum from inhibitory to excitatory gnosis. In other words, the work might look like someone lying as absolutely still as the 4 of Swords knight, as if they have left their body entirely (inhibitory gnosis). Or it might look like someone dancing, drumming, singing, taking on animal forms, speaking in languages other than their own (excitatory gnosis). There is more than one way to send the soul on a journey.
But I would argue that in each of these, the objective is the same: a quest for something that cannot be found in ordinary life or by ordinary means.
When I first encountered the images of the Libra III decan, I was baffled. Rather than the scene of recumbent tranquility we see in the 4 of Swords, the commentaries consistently featured outrageous behavior: ”a man about to attack," with "quiver and armor" or "bow and arrows". He is always holding something, though it is not always weaponry; sometimes it's "a bowl of wine" and "food" or a "little pack". The commentators say the decan signifies gluttony, sodomy, raucous singing, etc. - behaviors represented as beyond the pale of "civilized" society.
Now, when I think about it, I think these are images of ecstatic gnosis - consciousness seeking to transcend itself in whatever manner possible. The wine and sex may signify exit routes from normal mind-states; the bow and arrow may signify the search for "enhanced information". Indeed, the full moon in this decan is known as the "Hunter's Moon". Whether that hunt takes place in the internal or the external wilderness matters less than the hunt itself. One can find meaning within or without, but one cannot live without it entirely.
When you draw the 4 of Swords, consider it a complex invitation (a) to take a break from the toiling and spinning imposed on us by the external world, and (b) to explore the rich landscape of the inner world. The keyword I use for 4's is 'gathering' - which makes the 4 of Swords quite literally the gathering (4) of thoughts (swords). Collecting your thoughts, inevitably, leads to a collected state of mind. [Ironically, it seems that the "collection" of thoughts leads to an "expansion" of worldview.]
As detailed above, the 4 of Swords may call for meditation, active imagination, divination work, or sleep. Or it might simply be a general call to retreat and rest for a while, so that you can restore your natural equilibrium.
It is, incidentally, an excellent counterweight to the harsher aspects of the 3 of Swords and other saturnine cards, like the 5 and 10 of Wands.
“I have said that [Romantic] poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried out…."
- William Wordsworth, from the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800)